28 November 2023

Urgent Call to Strengthen Support for Exhausted First Responders

Australia has never asked more of first responders. Frankly, they are exhausted. The severe start to this year’s bushfire season is compounded by enduring trauma from the Black Summer fires, the demanding response to COVID-19, and the destructive 2022 Eastern Australia floods.

During times of disaster, 370,000 first responders stand on the frontlines, dedicated to preserving lives and protecting properties in affected communities across the nation. Their work is a testament to their resolve, but it comes at a significant personal cost.

The nature of first responder work leads to alarming rates of psychological distress, diagnosed mental health conditions, and thoughts of suicide. Families are also impacted, experiencing what is known as ‘spill-over stress.’ Those who defend our communities should not have to hurt from helping us.

Just one week after winter’s end, firefighters battled uncontrollable blazes nationwide, forewarning the imminent challenges of summer. In the Spring of 2023, the destruction of more homes in Queensland compared to the entire Black Summer Bushfire period underscores the magnitude of the current emergency. Given the early stage of the season, the effects will be felt across Australia as a whole.

At the same time, ongoing fires in the Northern Territory are anticipated to result in approximately 80% of the region being scorched by bushfires by March 2024, in a once-in-a-decade fire event, as projected by authorities. Just last week, we witnessed the destructive consequences of the spring bushfire season in Western Australia, as evidenced by the recent loss of 18 homes in Wanneroo, located north of Perth.

As summer approaches, vital frontline services are already under immense pressure and urgently need our backing. They cannot continue their efforts without us. Their unwavering commitment, essential for our safety, relies on unified action from the Australian public, all levels of government and organisations like Fortem Australia, providing targeted and impactful services to strengthen first responder resilience.

With the long and sweltering season looming, these brave individuals are grappling with exhaustion, burnout, and growing concerns about the impending threats. The early signs of strain among our firefighting forces before the start of summer is deeply troubling, requiring immediate attention and national action.

At Fortem Australia, the leading support organisation for first responders, anxiety ranks as the second most prominent issue among individuals seeking our clinical services, following stress. The rise in stress levels and burnout due to continuous firefighting efforts, coupled with worries about the impending summer, remains a recurring theme.

Additionally, both first responders and their families have expressed concerns about the nation’s readiness to handle disasters, the scarcity of rain and water resources, and the potential risks to their safety while operating on the frontlines.

This situation is underscored by a groundbreaking Australian study conducted in the aftermath of the catastrophic 2019-2020 Black Summer fire season. The study uncovered a sobering reality: 5,000 firefighting personnel who courageously confronted the fires demonstrated an alarming need for mental health support due to the distressing, harrowing, and life-threatening experiences they encountered. Shockingly, this need surpassed initial expectations, doubling the anticipated rate.

During this devastating period, volunteers made up a significant 78% of total responders, while nearly all available paid personnel were actively engaged. A substantial proportion – 25% of employees and 31% of volunteers – felt their lives were at risk during Black Summer, with traumatic events deeply affecting many on the fireground. This emphasises the immense toll borne by those who bravely responded to protect lives and property in times of national disaster.

The ‘Second National Action Plan‘ from the National Emergency Management Agency has also shed light on the concerning mental health burden faced by first responders during disaster response. Neglecting this burden without providing timely and meaningful assistance jeopardises their capability, longevity, and the sector’s capacity to respond to escalating disaster events.

The efforts of first responders and the deeply personal toll of their work often goes underappreciated. We must change this. Acknowledging the human toll of being the first on the scene and collectively expressing gratitude for this often-overlooked duty are crucial steps we must all take.

We must also collectively urge all levels of government to provide immediate, nationally consistent, and adequately funded support to fortify the resilience of first responders both before and after disasters occur. The critical need to enhance the human capability of first responders is undeniable. While government expenditure traditionally prioritises disaster mitigation through infrastructure and the purchase of operational equipment, a pivot towards human readiness and recovery is fundamental.

In recent times, Australia’s healthcare system has lacked the capacity to expand and respond to escalated needs, especially during cascading national disasters. This frequently results in extended waiting periods or limited access to appropriate support services.

This situation is notably relevant for first responders who require tailored and effective care, rich with understanding. Fortem Australia is at the forefront of delivering this support, directly aiding thousands of first responders to endure the physical, emotional, and psychological demands of disasters.

However, more needs to be done. Caring for the mental health and wellbeing of first responders is akin to backburning – a measure taken to shield our communities and enhance the land’s resilience against bushfires. The Commonwealth must take the lead on a nationally coordinated ‘backburning’ system for all first responders to strengthen the numbers, retention, morale, and capability of those serving in disaster-affected regions.

It is high time that we deepen investment and fortify those who protect our country from catastrophe. This reinforcement must be focused and substantial, providing tangible assistance to first responders during this intense fire season. It should also address the long-term effects that may arise in the coming months and years. This approach will better equip first responders to weather the demands of their roles amidst the pressures of cascading, compounding, and concurrent disasters. The path to a more resilient Australia starts with backing those who safeguard the nation. This could not be more important and is well overdue. Because, when we support those who keep our communities safe, we support all Australians.

James Maskey, Director of Policy, Fortem Australia